World Champion Magnus Carlsen is on a roll, and is definitely now back to his dominating best. The Norwegian superstar extended his lead at the top of the 2nd Vugar Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, as he almost effortlessly cruised to yet another stylish win in the tournament, this time beating ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, who sadly slumped to his third successive loss.
Carlsen’s critics have claimed that there’s been a very visible dip in his form since he won the title in 2014. Now, with his performance so far in Shamkir, he’s extended his lead at the top to a full point over Viswanathan Anand going into this weekend’s final two rounds. In the process, he’s now a massive 69 rating points clear of the (new again) No 2 Fabiano Caruana of Italy who, with another win in Shakmir, again leapfrogged US Champion Hikaru Nakamura.
Many had claimed that Carlsen has yet to dominate a really strong tournament in the absolute way that Alexander Alekhine did in 1930, Bobby Fischer did through 1970-72, and Garry Kasparov did on several occasions. A strong finish from Carlsen in Shakmir would go a long way to putting him among the super-champion gold standard set by the aforementioned trio - and have his critics thinking again!
Round 7 standings: 1. Magnus Carlsen (Norway), 5.5pts/7; 2. Viswanathan Anand (India), 4.5; 3-4.Fabiano Caruana (Italy) & Wesley So (USA), 4pts; 5. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), 3.5; 6-8. Anish Giri (Netherlands), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) and Rauf Mamedov (Azerbaijan), 3; 9. Vladimir Kramnik (Russia), 2.5; 10. Michael Adams (England), 2.
Round 8 pairings (Saturday 24th April; 6am Eastern, 3am Pacific, 11am BST): Adams-Giri, Kramnik-Vachier-Lagrave, So-Carlsen, Mamedov-Caruana, Anand-Mamedyarov. There's live coverage available at www.shamkirchess.az.
M Carlsen - V Kramnik
2nd Vugar Gashimov Memorial, (7)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 The Berlin Defence: Kramnik all but single-handedly revived this late 19th century way of meeting the Ruy Lopez at the elite level, by surprisingly deploying it to great effect to bamboozle Garry Kasparov in their 2000 world title match in London. 4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 0-0 6.0-0 d6 7.h3 Ne7 8.d4 Bb6 9.Bd3 d5 10.Nbd2 dxe4 11.Nxe4 Nxe4 12.Bxe4 exd4 13.Qc2 h6 14.a4 c6 Accepting the pawn sacrifice is very dangerous for Black: 14...dxc3 15.Rd1 Qe8 16.a5 Bc5 17.Qxc3 Bd6 18.a6 Rb8 19.Be3 b6 20.Re1 and for the pawn, White has the much better piece development and great attacking potential. 15.Rd1 Nd5 16.Nxd4 Re8 17.a5! Bxa5 17...Bc7 18.a6! and suddenly Black is in trouble of seeing his queenside collapsing. 18.Nf3! b5 19.Nd4! After enticing Kramnik into the weakening b5, Carlsen returns the knight to exploit the damage. 19...Bc7?! Kramnik suddenly cracks under the relentless pressure - his only option looked like 19...Bb7 20.Bxd5 cxd5 21.Nxb5 Bb6 22.Bf4 Qf6 23.Qd2 but with careful play, Carlsen can easily deal with the bishop-pair and will prey on the two weak Black queenside pawns. 20.Nxc6 Qd6 The bishop-pair, in combination with the queen looming down on Carlsen's king looks dangerous, but there is nothing there - it is all illusionary. And with a series of precise moves, Carlsen converts his win with ease. 21.g3 Bb7 22.Bf4! Qxc6 23.Bxd5 Re1+ 24.Kh2! Not allowing Kramnik off the hook with a draw, after 24.Rxe1? Qxd5 25.Qe4 Qxe4 26.Rxe4 Bxe4 27.Bxc7 Now, after 24.Kh2, Carlsen leaves Kramnik defending a very difficult position where there's a material imbalance. 24...Qxd5 25.Rxd5 Rxa1 26.Rd1 Rxd1 27.Qxd1 Rd8 28.Qe2 Bb6 29.Be3 Bxe3 30.Qxe3 The trouble for Kramnik, is that he can't find a secure outpost for his bishop without losing his queenside pawns. 30...Rd1 31.g4 Bc6 If 31...Bd5 32.Qe8+ winning the important b-pawn, and also making the c-pawn passed and powerful. 32.Qc5! Stronger than taking on a7 - the b-pawn offers Kramnik some sort of hope, if he can get his bishop to c4. 32...Bd7 33.Qxa7 Rd2 34.Kg3 Rd3+ 35.Kf4 Kh7 There's just no way for Kramnik to coordinate his pieces to work in unison. 36.Qb7 Rd2 37.Ke3 Rd6 38.f4 g6 39.Qb8 Rd5 40.Ke4 Be6 41.Qb7 Rc5 Kramnik's pieces just have no scope to work together, in the hope of establishing a fortress to save the game. Kudos to Carlsen, who now marches his king up the board to complete the attack. The world champion makes it all look so easy - but over-the-board, this is not so easy to execute. 42.Kd4 Rc4+ 43.Ke5 Zugzwang! All moves loses for Black now. 43...b4 44.cxb4 Rc2 45.Kf6 Rxb2 46.Qb8 Rf2 (See Diagram) 47.f5! Carlsen ruthlessly finds the quickest way to victory - he's playing for mate! 47...gxf5 48.Qg3 Rf1 49.g5 1-0